In the opening shot of Hunger, a small army of protesters — hunger-strikers, perhaps — is bringing the noise by banging empty soup bowls loudly against the ground. That scene is followed, lyrically, by a scene depicting an older, staid-looking gentleman eating his breakfast, tiny crumbs tumbling from his fork onto the napkin tucked away on his lap and then getting brushed away. He heads out to his car, looks up and down the street, and then falls to his knees and peers carefully at the car’s undercarriage before opening the door and getting in. His wife watches from the front-room window, the tension on her face easing slightly as the car roars to life and her husband drives away. This man turns out to be a guard at a prison in Northern Ireland. We see this man washing blood from his knuckles, which have been torn raw by the force of some blunt impact. It’s only later that we’re shown the sadistic behavior that earned him those scars. In a scene that toys with an audience’s mounting sense of dread, we see him taking a smoke break outside the prison walls, enjoying the tactile sensation of a light snowfall before heading back inside to do, we suspect, his worst. It’s a tense, expertly fraught study in contrasts that dramatizes the difference between the haves and the have-nots — the fed and the hungry.
Here, director Ken Loach takes a stab at exploring the long-simmering tensions in Ireland that exploded in 1920, as guerilla columns fought against the British military forces that had been deployed to block the movement for Irish independence. The result of the violent struggle was a truce and a treaty — which only splintered the country into a state of civil war between those who were happy to see the feared “black and tan” squads leave and those who felt that the Irish deserved a more decisive break from the British government. Loach works with a screenplay by Paul Laverty that essentially compresses the passions of the struggle into the story of two brothers who fight together but end up taking opposite sides after the treaty is signed. Though the brother-versus-brother clichés are pretty hoary, Loach has a no-nonsense approach to this style of filmmaking, and though the film is perhaps overlong and a mite formulaic, it’s gripping.